Looking at the posters outside Wyndham’s theatre tonight, and reading through the programme, I was reminded of a collection of First World War postcards that my Mother inherited from her aunt. Some were black and white with sepia tones, but others were stunningly embroidered in vibrant colours. When my mother died, I took the collection to a well-known firm of auctioneers to get them valued. “They’re very nice”, said the woman who looked at them. “But I’m afraid that they’re not worth very much because everyone had them at the time”. So I passed them on to my niece – it seemed somehow more appropriate for them to be cherished by a female member of the family.
The horrors of the First World War (1914-18) still attract the interests of playwrights, poets and filmmakers, as well as the ‘man in the street’. Perhaps that’s because the war touched the lives of so many ordinary people, or that it was so well-documented, for example by the kind of postcards in my Mother’s collection, or in film and the work of writers such as Wilfred Owen.
French playwright Gérald Sibleyras wrote his play ‘The Wind in The Poplars’ over a period of about 10 years, seeing it finally staged (apparently unsuccessfully as far as he was concerned) in Paris in 2002. This new version of Sibleyras’s work, re-named ‘Heroes’, has been translated (with minor amendments) by Tom Stoppard.
The programme notes confirm that ‘translation is a tricky business’, and indeed it would seem to be the case – so much so that the translation stalled at the very first hurdle, the title. Apparently, there were concerns that the original title might be confused with ‘The Wind In The Willows’. However, I don’t think that would have mattered, or even been of concern to the general public, because I think the original title is far more appropriate for the subject-matter of the play, and more evocative. However, the title aside, the translation seems to be quite faithful, and the author at least seems happy with the finished product, and feels the current version is a step-up from his original work.
The play is based on Sibleyras’s discovery that veterans of the First World War were often retired at relatively young ages, often living-out the remainder of their lives in French military hospitals – in some cases for 30 years or more. His play takes a kind of ‘snapshot’ of the daily lives of three of these veterans: Henri (played by Richard Griffiths), Gustave (played by John Hurt), and Philippe (played by Ken Stott).
The play takes place on one of the terraces in the veteran’s hospital. It’s a ‘private’ terrace in the sense that the three veterans have ‘captured’ it for their own use, and do not invite anyone else to share it. It’s a ‘world within a world’, a sort of mini-empire with obvious echoes of the causes of the First World War itself.
The three veterans while away their time in discussion about fellow inmates, or the nuns who care for them, or make plans for a journey (which we know will never take place) to the distant poplar trees that seem to lure them from the security of their terrace.
At the beginning of the play, one is immediately struck by the staging. A large black and white postcard on the act drop morphs via an ingenious lighting effect into the terrace. Robert Jones’s design is both beautiful and incredibly detailed – one of the best sets I’ve seen in some time. The terrace is a large garden where small weeds grow from a stone wall, and tall, slender trees stand to attention in the background echoing the former military days of the hospital inmates. During scene changes, small birds flit across the sky via the technological wizardry of projection. And a stone dog sits with timeless patience awaiting the instructions of his masters.
As one would expect from a cast of this fine calibre, the acting is first class if not flawless, throughout. Richard Griffiths lumbers around the stage as the pragmatic realist, Henri, while John Hurt retains all the military disdain of an officer used to being ‘in charge’, challenging and even assaulting the nuns who care for him, even though he’s too afraid of the outside world to venture anywhere on his own. And Ken Stott’s Philippe lapses regularly into unconsciousness due to shrapnel lodged in his brain. Each of these characters is uniquely and exquisitely defined, in exceptionally well-directed playing.
Sibleyras says his play is not only about ‘human mortality’ but also about ‘the universal desire to escape from the confines of your life’. Now the veterans are certainly ‘prisoners’ just as surely if they had been captured by the enemy during the war. Though they make plans for a journey, they’re going nowhere, and they know it. The problem is that they don’t fit in the outside world any more, and indeed cannot exist or survive in it. So for me, the play is not about the desire to escape, it’s more about the legacy of war, and how the suffering of war continues even after the politicians have patched things up – it’s the lives of ordinary people which, in the process, are ruined forever.
‘Heroes’ is a ‘gentle’ comedy. Although there are very funny moments – such as when the veterans are practicing roping themselves together with a hose pipe, or when they’re talking about the need to make women laugh being as important as making them climax, there’s no grittiness to the plot or the situation. The overall feel is similar to that of the long-running BBC television series ‘Last of The Summer Wine’. And maybe that’s what Sibleyras means when he says ‘it’s a British play’. For me, it’s just a little too placid to do justice to the subject matter. But, with great acting from a top-notch cast, and a lovingly created production, it’s still well-worth seeing.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Theatrical hit, a boulevard comedy bull's-eye...achieves a seductive fusion of the comic, sad and absurd." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Little more than a delicately acted piece of sentimental Gallic whimsy...exudes a certain mild fun...The chief pleasure in Thea Sharrock's nuanced production lies in watching three highly skilled actors at work. " CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Line by beautifully delivered line the play proves wonderfully entertaining." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "It feels a bit lacking in meat and bite...Delicacy, melancholy, a rueful humour are the qualities that mark Sibleyras’s study — you can’t quite call it a story..." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The excellent acting does much to compensate for the inadequacies in the script, and when the writing rises to the performances, the effect is heady. "